June 25, 2017

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3-D Printing: Worth the Hype? | The Maker Issue

Photo from iStock/Thinkstock

Photo from iStock/Thinkstock

If you’ve ever seen a 3-D printer at work, you know how mesmerizing it can be. LEDs flicker to life, fans and motors spin up to speed, and then, the print head (or nozzle) begins its dance back and forth along X- and Y-axis belt drives (and up and down the Z-axis), extruding its “make” into being onto the print plate. Equal parts robot, building blocks, and hot glue gun, 3-D printing is a technology that’s making its way into schools and libraries.

The printers work like this: a print head draws plastic filament from a large reel, heats the filament, and then extrudes it onto a build plate to print in 3-D. The print head (and sometimes the build plate) move on X, Y, and Z axes following instructions from design files uploaded to the printer via USB cable or SD card. Once the heated filament hits the build plate, it cools quickly, so the print head can dash back and forth across cooled portions of the print and continue its additive work, building up to the top of the design. Of course, dash is a relative term. Complex builds take hours, if not days (add to that the design time). Nevertheless, 3-D printing seems magical, and the feeling of wonder we get from watching a printer at work is a strong hook.

After we get a handle on how the printers work, what’s next? What is possible with 3-D printing in schools and libraries? And is it possible that the answer is “nothing much”?

Outside of school, 3-D printers have been used to manufacture all sorts of things from art and prosthetics to Minecraft statuettes and spare parts for the space station.

However, not all of these projects are easily or immediately replicable inside classrooms and libraries.

How can libraries—inside and outside of schools—get started with a single printer? How do 3-D printers fit into emerging library maker spaces? And who pays for and maintains this technology? How do we educate students and other users about our printers and ensure access to the device(s) while serving hundreds of patrons or students a day?

Thankfully, early adopters have taken the plunge and begun to grapple with these issues. These expert explorers have plenty of useful firsthand experience to share.

Unboxing your printer

Your first 3-D printer has just arrived. There it is, inside a cardboard box, sitting in the middle of the library. Maybe your department paid for it to support a library maker space initiative. Perhaps you decided a 3-D printer was worth the investment via your library budget or you secured a STEM grant. So what happens next?

At two high schools in Albemarle County, VA, school librarians invited students to participate in their printers’ unboxings.

“I took the box, cut off the tape, and put it in the middle of the floor,” says Mae Craddock, media specialist at Monticello High School. “Then kids started asking questions. We took it out of the box and played with the parts. I set it out and let the kids figure it out.”

That student involvement from the start has paid dividends. Craddock’s students have learned to swap out parts and even re-solder malfunctioning wiring in their library’s machine.

Erica Thorsen, media specialist at Albemarle High School, was very fortunate. When the library’s printer arrived, she learned that students in the school’s STEM academy—called MESA—were old hands with the technology, which was acquired for the library as part of Albemarle County schools’ maker space initiative. “We were lucky that we had MESA. A student came down and helped us set it up, use it, and put the filament in the printer,” she says.

Of course, not every student is ready to re-solder a bad connection. Generating interest after unboxing a 3-D printer at the elementary and middle school levels is sometimes less about technical details and more about the printer’s placement.

Shawn Hinger, media specialist at Clarke Middle School in Athens, GA, put her library’s device “right in front of the library, on the main hallway.” As a result, she says, “everybody in town knows we have a 3-D printer.” Hinger says that enough Clarke students told their siblings about the printer that the high school robotics team came knocking when it needed replacement parts for its robot. The printer’s high visibility made it both a school and community asset that served two schools at once: high school students got their spare parts and middle-schoolers got a visit from the robotics team to demo their work.

“I do think the best option is to have a dedicated space for the machine that is accessible for as many hours as possible,” says Wes Roberts, library services manager in workforce and economic development at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP). While his library’s 3-D printer is not as visible as Roberts would like, he knows that putting printers in front of users is essential.

Roberts’s library prints patrons’ designs for them at $.05 per gram, and while that printing takes place out of patrons’ sight in the library’s offices, he says that there are other ways to enhance use of the device. The library began to offer 3-D modeling classes using free online modeling software called TinkerCad. Patrons in the class “get a hands-on experience that makes the process of 3-D printing make more sense,” he says.

Partnering with community mentors is another great way to engage 3-D printing. For example, the teen space at Carnegie teamed up with the Additive Project, a local nonprofit working on open STEM curricula for underserved youth. Teaming with the Additive Project helped J.J. Lendl, a teen specialist in the Labs @ CLP, get comfortable running 3-D printing workshops for teens.

Students at Clarke Middle School, Athens, GA, with the school library’s 3-D printer. Photo courtesy of Clarke Middle School Library

Students at Clarke Middle School, Athens, GA, with the school library’s 3-D printer.
Photo courtesy of Clarke Middle School Library

First prints

Play often takes precedence when it comes to 3-D printing. Most devices ship with an SD card, including starter projects and files ready to print. Novice users can also access clearinghouse sites like Thingiverse, which offers a multitude of community-sourced designs.

While printing neat stuff from the Internet likely isn’t your end goal, it’s sometimes helpful to start with a basic, even silly project to learn how to upload a file.

“Just jump right in,” says Thorsen. “Premake takeaways for events, grab anyone who seems interested, could be interested, or anyone who has a project that might benefit from 3-D printing. Start simple from the SD card,” she says. Teachers and students who then want to print their own designs will come to the library.

Moving past the “widgets”

Brandon Klevence, who works with the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Maker Jawn youth initiative, encourages librarians to help users move past “widgets” toward more functional items that serve a role in participants’ learning and derive from users’ own designs. “At the end of the day, you want people making, not downloading something and staring at it like it’s a television,” says Klevence, who cites a tablet stand, cookie cutter, or a prop for a stop-motion animation project as examples of functional items.

The real value of 3-D printing comes from helping users learn to design and make objects that hold personal meaning for their lives and learning. Niq Tognoni, studio coordinator at Nashville Public Library, says that 3-D printing, “is a useful tool to instill the sort of DIY and creator-over-consumer mind-set with our patrons.” Moreover, says Tognoni, 3-D printing, “expands the idea many of our patrons have of design” beyond two dimensions. “You can literally sculpt [your ideas] and bring them to life in a few clicks of the mouse.” Tognoni cites jewelry and models of future cities as complex products his patrons have designed and printed with this maker mind-set.

In his library’s “big success story,” Roberts says a patron printed a housing unit for a Raspberry Pi, sonar device, and a video camera that attaches to a bicycle to “detect near-misses with cars.” Other projects have included a 3-D printed brain from an MRI scan, a robotic hand for a science-fair project, and an in-progress 3-D-rendered map of geographic data.

Teachers and students have undertaken similarly complex work in school libraries.

At Monticello High School, Craddock and her students say that the best projects realize complex ideas in such a way that helps learners better understand them. One class printed models of 17th-century ship cannons to illustrate the differences in naval warfare then and now. Another class “printed” an equation with solutions sets of X and Y into a kind of airy memory foam. At Albemarle High School, Thorsen describes a history class project in which students studying ancient Rome reverse-engineered artifacts, printed them from digital models they created themselves, and then Skyped about the artifacts with third graders who were also studying Roman civilization.

It’s that kind of outreach that makes a 3-D printing project especially worthwhile. Whether their work is showcased in a school display, used for a real-world application like a collision-alarm, or shared with an audience outside of the school or library, students and patrons can learn the most about the how and why of 3-D printing by creating something that matters to them and others.

The goal at Kilmer Middle School in Fairfax County, VA, says school librarian Gretchen Hazlin, was to involve students in design. “We didn’t want them simply going to the web, searching for something to print, and then printing it. We really wanted our students to modify designs or design something from scratch.”

It’s a worthy goal for 3-D printing in the library, but it can take time to get there—to feel confident in both the technology and pedagogy that makes such projects hum.

“If I were researching the water cycle,” says Hinger, “I might research that, create a website for it, and share the website. I feel like that project cycle is complete: solving a problem and sharing the information. Where is that step in 3-D printing?”

What to keep in mind

What’s most important to keep in mind on the way to designing and delivering meaningful programming in 3-D printing? How do we build up to those awe-inspiring projects happening in libraries right now?

Librarians, including Hazlin, Lendl, and Roberts, suggest learning your design software before your printer arrives. The idea here is to hit the ground running so that you can be a facilitator for users’ work right away. But others, like Craddock, value learning alongside students and empowering them to be the 3-D printing experts. If it makes the most sense in your library to know a significant amount about 3-D modeling and printing before your device arrives, perhaps because of your students’ ages or patrons’ interests, check out TinkerCAD, 123-Design, and SketchUp, popular and easy to use 3-D modeling programs. Printers sometimes require conversion of design files into different kinds of print files, as well, so researching your printers’ technical requirements is important, too.

SLJ1505-3D-Lib-Image-PQIt’s also worth noting that maintaining a 3-D printer takes a lot of work and troubleshooting. For example, you might need to re-level your printer’s plate after somebody bumps into it or clear a jam from the print head’s nozzle after only a few builds. Sometimes builds fail and you have to start over or adjust a design to accommodate internal supports.

Some printers can be temperamental or better suited to more experienced users. MakerBot printers, for example, according to Roberts, are like “the Apple of 3-D printers: you know what you’re getting, but if you’re buying one of those machines, one should be prepared to get add-ons.” Build plates on MakerBots sometimes require a layer of blue painter’s tape to make it easier to peel off completed prints, while other printers might need kapton tape instead. “Know what you’re getting when you get your machine,” advises Roberts.

This is a sentiment echoed by Jessica Simons, librarian at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, CA. “The first printer we bought was the Printrbot Simple Metal because it was much cheaper than others out there, and MAKE magazine had recommended it for schools.” Simons, however, notes the learning curve that comes with the device’s no-frills design. “On the other hand,” she says, “we were printing 20 minutes after unboxing our fifth generation MakerBot Replicators.”

If you have staff or users eager to get their hands dirty setting up and maintaining a printer, a more bare-bones or DIY device might fit the bill. But if you want to print out-of-the-box, you might choose a less hackable model. Consider your library’s needs, then measure them against MAKE’s “3-D Printer Test Results” before making a purchase.

After making the initial investment in a device (which might easily total more than $1,000), keep in mind the ongoing costs of 3-D printing; there’s a surprising amount of labor for an automated printing process. While materials (filament) are relatively inexpensive, you still must invest a lot of time in learning how to use the hardware and software. Everything about 3-D printing gets easier with time, but, for now, 3-D printing takes a lot of time.

Apart from maintenance, print time is another cost to keep in mind. And, of course, facilitating access has to remain a primary concern. How do we keep our printers up and running and how do we ensure that all of our users have fair and equitable access not only to the printer, but also to modeling software and opportunities to learn how to use it? There’s no set answer to these questions, but we should hold to them and maximize accessibility, if 3-D printing is a service we want to offer in our schools and libraries.

Is 3-D printing worth the hype?

The short answer: yes.

While initially a skeptic, Roberts says, “the machine truly is awe-inducing. It has garnered quite a bit of interest in local media and demonstrated that the library is ‘more than books.’” However, he adds, “it’s probably not for all libraries.” Lendl concurs. “Like any program at the library, it’s not a one size fits all,” he says. However, after seeing printing at work in his library’s teen space and in an outreach program at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, he says, “3-D printing has brought a certain ‘wow’ factor to the teen space and has allowed many teens to see themselves as designers and makers who wouldn’t have embraced those roles otherwise.”

Klevence also takes a measured, though ultimately positive, stance. He says, “3-D printers are great, but be sure to work out the infrastructure… and take into account the variety of patron interests from Naruto to baking. Use them in a sustainable fashion by printing things for the library first. Measure twice and cut once by playing around on the modeling [software] side of things!”

Thorsen says that it can be a “hard call” to purchase a 3-D printer from a library budget, but, overall, 3-D printing is, “a lot of fun and the kids have really taken to it.” Her Albemarle County colleagues Atkinson and Craddock agree. “It’s absolutely worth the hype,” says Atkinson. “The ability to make an idea a reality is pretty darn awesome.”

If you have the time, money, and space to make 3-D printing a visible part of your school or community library or maker space, it seems like a great time to make an investment in turning ideas into realities. You don’t have to be an expert to begin 3-D printing, but you do have to commit yourself to learning the modeling and printing sides of the technology. You’ll likely not be alone in dreaming up projects or unclogging printers, but it will take a personal investment by you to get 3-D printing up and running in your learning space. There is help all around, but there are challenges, too.

It’s likely that we’ll have to take advantage of both to do 3-D printing well in the library.

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Chad Sansing About Chad Sansing

Chad Sansing (csansing@gmail.com) teaches middle school language arts in Staunton, VA.

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